The World Cup will dominate television sets this summer and per usual, most of the elite European nations (as well as a few South American teams) will be considered as favorites, or at the very least serious contenders. There’ll be lofty expectations placed on teams like Italy, England, Germany and defending champion Spain. On the surface, all four teams couldn’t be more different, but they all seem to have similar strengths and weaknesses.
Those “strengths and weaknesses” are being blessed with an obnoxious number of world-class midfielders and having huge question marks at striker.
Let’s take a closer look at Italy, England, Germany and Spain:
Coach Cesare Prandelli certainly holds an enviable job in terms of picking a midfield grouping. With Italy using everything formation from a 4-3-1-2 to a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-2-1 (also known as “The Christmas Tree,” my personal favorite in terms of naming), it’s not clear how Prandelli will line up his players. What is clear is that when Prandelli fills out the team sheet, he’ll have his pick of a midfield group that includes Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo, Juventus duo Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, PSG pairing Marci Verratti and Thiago Motta, jack of all trades Emanuele Giaccherini and close-to-mainstay-status Antonio Candreva. Gli Azzurri will likely be in good hands in the middle of the park.
The striker situation is a sharp contrast in terms of stability. Mario Balotelli is… Mario Balotelli. Playing for Prandelli seems to draw out the best in him on the pitch from a mental and physical standpoint, so he likely won’t be an issue. Still, his mercurial tendency remains. Ideally Giuseppe Rossi would line up next to him, but injuries have plagued the New Jersey native’s career. After Balotelli and Rossi, you have Pablo Osvaldo who is mercurial in his own right. Also in the strike force are Stephan El Shaarawy and Alberto Gilardino. Shaarawy is struggling through an injury and form issues, while the 31 year-old Gilardino could have potential issues in Brazil’s sweltering heat, where endurance and fitness will be key. Prandelli has even thrown around the idea of calling up Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero for the finals in Brazil.
If every mercurial and injury-prone striker can play issue free during the World Cup, Prandelli could be lifting a trophy. If not, Italy may not achieve all of its outstanding potential.
Italy’s Group D adversary, England, is currently playing out the twilight years of an era that has seen the midfield controlled by legends Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Joining them in the national team set-up are youngsters like Jack Wilshere, Andros Townsend, Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The latter group may not be on the level of the former duo yet, but they have potential. With England’s two elder statesmen, the youngsters and veterans such as Michael Carrick and Ashley Young, the Three Lions are in a comfortable place in midfield. They may not be the best or most dynamic bunch, but they work for England.
Up front is a very different story.
Wayne Rooney is the only proven commodity on the international level. Daniel Sturridge seems a solid bet to go to Brazil thanks to his scintillating form at Liverpool, but after that the options dwindle in comparative quality. Andy Carroll may or may not be recalled to the team in the near future. Jermain Defoe will face an uphill battle thanks to his move to Toronto FC, while the duo of Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez have five more senior international caps than I do.
England relies on Rooney. If he’s on, they stand a good bet to do well. If he and the other forwards are off… well, good luck scoring goals and getting out of a group that includes Italy and Uruguay.
If you thought the quality of Italy and England’s respective midfielders was world-class, wait until you see Germany’s.
Die Mannschaft’s team sheet could feature any grouping of the following players in the center of the park: Sven Bender, Sidney Sam, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Lars Bender, Mario Gotze, Marco Reus, Toni Kroos, Andre Schurrle and Ilkay Gundogan. Because of these players, Germany will carry an advantage in the midfield into most games. Germany might carry an advantage if Joachim Löw was forced to pick three of the previously mentioned names out of a hat for his midfield.
In contrast to the abundance of midfielders, Germany carries very few forwards. Miroslav Klose, Mario Gomez, Max Kruse and Lukas Podolski likely will be in contention for spots on the final roster. It would be foolish to leave out the legendary Klose, but his age (35) will be a factor in the sauna of a country that is Brazil. Gomez is another strong bet to make the squad, but with the relatively-new Fiorentina player coming off of a long-term injury, nothing is certain. Kruse could be the odd man out if Klose and Gomez are fit enough to go. Based on his playing time this season, Podolski is an unknown. The former FC Koln star has an astounding 111 senior caps at the relatively young age of 28. He has the ability to be a lethal goal scorer and boasts loads of technique. However, the rub is that he isn’t getting a whole lot of time on the pitch at Arsenal as Oliver Giroud currently sits atop the striker pecking order. Should Podolski not get consistent playing time, he may miss the trip to the World Cup. It’s still possible he could go with less playing time if Low feels he can be an impact player. We will likely see this happen with other European stars such as Iker Casillas and Claudio Marchisio, both of whom aren’t regular starters for their club teams, so ruling out Podolski is somewhat premature.
Podolski being far from a lock to participate in soccer’s biggest competition only adds uncertainty to the German’s frontline. Like the other teams on this list, they could reach the highest of highs with their strikers on form. If not… let’s just say a world-class midfield can only get you so far.
The Spaniards are not the team they once were. Cracks have not only started to show, but they are in fact glaring. Teams know how to play against La Roja. Italy played well against their European rivals in Euro 2012 before taking them to edge in a penalty shoot-out at the Confederations Cup. That was a Balotelli-less Italian squad. If the Milan striker had played, who knows if Spain would have made the final?
If Italy cracked the dam, Brazil left it in splinters. The host nation destroyed Vincente del Bosque’s team and sent them back to the drawing board with a mix of relentless energy and athleticism.
Despite the loss, the champs boast possibly the best midfield in the world. Yes, better than Germany’s contingent. Xavi and Iniesta will start 99.9% of Spain’s competitive fixtures when healthy. Joining them in the central part of the pitch are the likes of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, and David Silva. That’s not counting players like Santi Carzola, Juan Mata, Javi Martinez, Thiago Alcantara, Isco, Jesus Navas and Koke.
Spain’s talent upfront is potentially as dangerous as their midfield. However they haven’t been able to settle on a consistent player to man the role. Fernando Torres (much like at Chelsea) has been hit and miss at times. Diego Costa is having a superb season at Atletico Madrid, but will have to work his way up the pecking order in order to receive a place in Brazil. Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado could be bumped from the plane to Brazil by the likes of Torres, Pedro and David Villa thanks to del Bosque’s tendency to pick players who aren’t receiving playing time at their respective clubs but were with the team during their multiple trophy-winning runs (see Iker Casillas). Fernando Llorente has been on fine form with Juventus and could be the answer Spanish fans have been looking for. Swansea’s Michu currently has a slim chance due to injury and fitness concerns.
While La Roja has a plethora of talented goal scorers, the frequency at which del Bosque calls up different forwards suggest he hasn’t found the right fit up top. Spain was able to win Euro 2012 mainly with a false nine, but they won’t be nearly as lucky come the World Cup.
Goals are essential for teams to win games, and generally the higher scoring players are the strikers. If Italy, England, Germany and Spain want to win games in Brazil, they need their strikers to produce. If not, they could be in trouble.
Ben Rosener is a high school senior from the Seattle area who is the editor and founder of Kingdome of Seattle Sports and Know Hitter. In addition to those sites, he writes for FanSided’s Emerald City Swagger and contributes to Bleacher Report. Ben is in the process of starting a soccer-themed Youtube channel called Sports on Terms. You can follow his criminally under-followed Twitter account here. He is also a massive sports fan and is a keen supporter of Juventus and the Italian National team. He only refers to himself in the third person for bios.